Ad agencies are full of people who come up with some incredibly creative ideas to promote various products. But sometimes they miss the mark — and miss it by a huge margin. Every now an then an ad, commercial, or marketing campaign slips by that is so offensive, it’s unbelievable that no one caught it during the approval process. These ads have featured racist undertones, jokes about the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and even assault and death. Check out the most tone-deaf ads of the 21st century (so far)…
Snapchat Ad Mocked The Domestic Violence Incident Involving Rihanna & Chris Brown
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In March 2018, Snapchat dropped an ad for a game that mocked pop star Rihanna’s domestic violence incident with former boyfriend Chris Brown. The ad for the game included photos of the two stars and asked users if they’d rather “slap Rihanna or punch Chris Brown.”
Rihanna was assaulted by Brown in 2009 when the two were a couple. Rihanna wrote in response to the ad: “I’d love to call it ignorance but I know you ain’t that dumb. You spent money to animate something that would intentionally bring shame to DV victims and made a joke of it.” Snapchat has since removed the ad and apologized for it.
Car manufacturers are repeat offenders in the “offensive ad” department, as we’ll see later…
Dove Campaign Showed A Black Woman Turning Into A White Woman
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Dove made a bit of a mistake after posting an advertisement on Facebook which showed a black woman turning into a white woman. The ad about body lotion featured a black woman taking off her top, revealing a white woman underneath. The white woman then took off her top and turned into a Middle Eastern woman.
American makeup artist Naomi Blake said, “the tone deafness in these companies makes no sense”. Dove, owned by Unilever, removed the ad and tweeted an apology: “An image we recently posted on Facebook missed the mark in representing women of colour thoughtfully. We deeply regret the offence it caused.”
Pepsi Missed The Mark With Its Kendall Jenner Protest Ad
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In 2017, a Pepsi ad featuring model Kendall Jenner caused controversy for making light of protests after police shootings of African Americans. At one point, Jenner gives a policeman monitoring a protest a can of soda. He takes a sip, and the crowd cheers. The ad was compared to a photo of Black Lives Matter protester Ieshia Evans in Baton Rouge (who was arrested).
Pepsi pulled the ad and said: “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly we missed the mark, and we apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are removing the content and halting any further rollout.”
Hyundai Used Suicide To Sell One Of Its Cars
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Hyundai launched a commercial in Britain in 2013 that featured a depressed man in his garage. He put a hose to the exhaust pipe of his car and inserted the other end of it through the passenger window. He was pictured sitting in the Hyundai with the engine on, waiting to die.
The ad was a promotion for the ix35, which has water emissions. This feature prevented the man from dying. Viewers were stunned by the insensitivity of the commercial. Ironically, Audi created an ad in 2009 featuring a similar concept. Citroen did the same in 2002.
Hyundai is not alone on this list. Read on to find out which other car companies released shocking and offensive ads.
PETA Fat-Shamed Non-Vegetarians
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People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) posted billboards in Jacksonville, Florida, in 2009 that extolled the virtues of a vegetarian lifestyle and basically fat-shamed anyone who consumed meat. The billboards showed a drawing of an obese woman at the beach with the slogan: “Save The Whales, Lose The Blubber: Go Vegetarian.”
PETA received numerous complaints about the billboards, which they took down and replaced with one that read: “Gone: Just like all the pounds lost by people who go vegetarian.” PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk defended the campaign, saying: “America’s obesity epidemic calls for tough love…not more coddling and mock shock over a billboard.”
Designer Tory Burch Whitewashed “Juju On That Beat”
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Fashion company Tory Burch promoted its spring/summer 2017 collection with a video featuring white models dancing to “Juju on that Beat” by Zay Hilfigerrr & Zayion McCall. The ad was criticized because the song was created and made popular by young black people, yet didn’t feature one single African American.
One awkward moment in the video featured the white models dancing to the lyrics “and you know my hair nappy.” The ad also included a monkey-shaped handbag. The video was eventually pulled, and Burch apologized for it, saying, “I personally feel badly if this hurt anyone, and I’m truly sorry.”
Ikea Ad In China Stigmatized Single Women
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Females in China who are over a certain age and are not married are known as “leftover women.” So when Ikea launched an ad showing a mother scolding her daughter for not “bringing home a boyfriend,” it left a bad taste in many people’s mouths. Ikea apologized, saying it was sorry for “giving the wrong perception”.
One critic wrote online: “This discriminates against singles and single women. No boyfriend, so your own family members look down on you, what kind of values does this transmit?” Another added, “Even if this sort of situation does happen in a lot of families, it’s not suitable to make advertisements about it, because it’s wrong.”
A VW Ad No One Was Supposed To See Featured A Suicide Bomber
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Volkswagen was embroiled in controversy after an ad about a suicide bomber went public (it was never meant to be released). VW didn’t commission or approve the ad. A creative team trying to make a name for themselves made it to garner attention.
It featured a Middle Eastern man wearing a military jacket and checkered kaffiyeh cloth parking a VW Polo in front of a cafe where a mother and her baby were seated.
The man had explosives strapped to his chest, but when he pressed the detonator switch, the explosion was contained within the car. The tagline was: “Polo. Small but tough.”
Dolce & Gabbana Ad Depicted Sexual Assault
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A Dolce & Gabbana print ad from 2007 featured a topless man pinning down a woman who appeared unwilling to be in that position (her waist was lifted up as though she was resisting). Other men in the ad watched the action taking place.
It’s clear that the ad was meant to be sexy and provocative, but it was an affront to those who thought it resembled sexual assault. Spain and Italy banned the ad because they felt it portrayed “the passive and helpless position of the woman relative to the men around her, and the representation of abuse or the idea of violence towards her.”
Nivea’s “White Is Purity” Campaign Didn’t Go Over Well
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Nivea didn’t really think things through when it launched its “White Is Purity” campaign. One of its ads targeted towards Middle Eastern consumers promoted its “Invisible for Black and White” deodorant. It featured the back of a woman’s head, who had long dark hair and was wearing a white outfit. The slogan “WHITE IS PURITY” was written underneath.
The caption said: “Keep it clean, keep bright. Don’t let anything ruin it, #Invisible.” Many found the ad to be racist, and the outrage was fast. One Twitter user wrote: “Shame, Shame, Shame on you. Fire your marketing person and anyone who approved this ad.” The German-based company eventually deleted the ad.
McDonald’s Dead Dad Advertisement Was Rather Tasteless
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In 2017, McDonald’s pulled an ad from the United Kingdom because consumers felt it was insensitive to children who had lost one of their parents. The ad featured a widowed mother who described how her son was very different from his father. The one similarity? They both loved Filet-O-Fish sandwiches.
Numerous people filed complaints with the UK Advertising Standards Authority over the ad. The fast-food giant said in a statement: “It was never our intention to cause any upset. We are particularly sorry that the advert may have disappointed those people who are most important to us — our customers.”
The Gap Was Lambasted For Its Ad Featuring ‘Passive Racism’
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In 2016, the gap launched an ad featuring a group of child performers. The token African-American girl was essentially featured as an armrest for an older white girl. Many believed the ad was an example of “passive racism.” Gap was quick to replace the image in its advertising.
A spokesman said in a statement: “As a brand with a proud 46-year history of championing diversity and inclusivity, we appreciate the conversation that has taken place and are sorry to anyone we’ve offended. This GapKids campaign highlights true stories of talented girls who are celebrating creative self-expression and sharing their messages of empowerment.”
Mattress Store Mocked 9/11 Terrorist Attacks In A Very Offensive Commercial
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There will probably never come a time when it’s okay to mock 9/11, yet a San Antonio mattress store felt it was right to do so in 2016. During the anniversary of the terrorist attack, they held a “Twin Towers Sale” in which all their products were marked down to the price of a twin mattress.
Even worse, the mattresses were stacked up in a commercial to resemble the twin towers. Then employees knocked down the mattresses. The public was outraged, and the store owners apologized and promised to donate some of the sale’s profits to a 9/11 charity. The store was also shut down for a week.
Thai Skincare Firm Shocked With Its Ad For Skin Whitening Pills
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Thai skincare company Seoul Secret angered consumers within hours of releasing a 50-second video in 2016 featuring the slogan “white makes you win” to promote its skin-whitening pills. The ad featured Thai celebrity Cris Horwang extolling the virtues of pale skin.
Horwang noted that if it weren’t for her pale skin, she wouldn’t be as successful: “If I stop taking care of myself, everything I have worked for, the whiteness I have invested in, may be lost.” The company apologized after the video went viral (for all the wrong reasons) noting on Facebook: “Our company did not have any intention to convey discriminatory or racist messages.”
Ad For Chinese Laundry Detergent Contained Racist Undertones
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A 2016 ad for Qiaobi detergent in China offended an international audience. It featured a Chinese woman doing laundry when a black painter tries to kiss her. She reacts by shoving a detergent pod into his mouth and pushing him into the washing machine. At the end of the cycle after he’s “clean,” he turns into a pale Chinese man.
Chinese audiences weren’t too perturbed by the ad, but online viewers from other countries were shocked by its racist undertones. The backlash forced Qiaobi to pull the ad, but they were not very remorseful, saying the scandal was due to “the over-amplification by the media.”
Intel’s Ad For Its Duo Processor Had Slavery Connotations
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A 2007 print ad from Intel promoted the company’s Core 2 Duo processor. It compared the speed and power of the processor to the speed of human sprinters (which was actually one sprinter multiplied by six). The sprinters all happened to be black and were featured in the starter position, heads bowed and knees bent.
Meanwhile, a white Intel employee stood above the sprinters, which many saw as an allusion to slavery. Intel later apologized for the ad, saying, “Unfortunately, our execution did not deliver our intended message and in fact proved to be insensitive and insulting.”
How did one car company respond after enraging the public with a pedophelia-themed commercial? Read on to find out.
World Wildlife Fund Released A Controversial 9/11 Ad
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Brazilian advertising agency DDB Brazil created a campaign for the World Wildlife Fund in 2009 that stunned many. It featured a scenario in which dozens of planes struck NYC on 9/11. It was meant to tie in with the number of people who died from the 2005 Indian Ocean tsunami and to show how nature is extremely powerful.
The WWF claimed in a statement that the ad was “mistakenly” created and approved. They only took responsibility for the print ad and said they had no idea how the video ad got released. It’s unclear how such a tone-deaf ad got “mistakenly” approved in the first place.
Ad For Groupon Trivialized Tibetan Oppression
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During the 2011 Super Bowl, Groupon aired an ad that offended numerous viewers. Actor Timothy Hutton starred in the commercial, which was similar in tone to the Save the Children ads. He narrated: “The people of Tibet are in trouble; their very culture is in jeopardy.” But instead of being a public service announcement, the ad turned into a joke.
Hutton mentioned how Tibetans “whip up an amazing fish curry” and extolled the virtues of getting a great deal on Tibetan food through Groupon. Tibetan independence from China is a serious issue, and many felt the ad trivialized the cause. Groupon apologized and blamed its advertising agency.
Kia’s Pedophilia-Tinged Ad Pushed The Boundaries Of Decency
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Brazil launched a print ad for the Kia Sportage in 2011 that was meant to promote the car’s dual zone air conditioning, which enabled passengers to experience “a different temperature on each side.” The ad featured a drawing of a male teacher tutoring a young female student — with two vastly different scenarios.
The disturbing scenario showed the teacher biting into an apple given to him by the student, to which he responds “Mmmmm. It’s delicious. So juicy.” The student then asked for him to give her a lesson in anatomy. Somehow the ad received a prestigious Cannes Silver Lion award before it was pulled. Kia later stated they never approved it.
Dove’s Before-And-After Ad Was An Affront To Women Of Color
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Dove launched a print ad in 2011 for its Visible Care Body Wash that many thought was racist. The background of the ad featured close-up photos of a person’s skin. The “before” image showed dry skin, while the “after” image showed smoother skin. The foreground of the photo featured a black woman, Latina (or Middle Eastern) woman and white woman.
The black woman was lined up in front of the “before” picture, while the white woman was in front of the “after” image, and the Latina woman was in the middle. Many consumers took that to mean that if you use Dove products, your skin will gradually get lighter.